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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Whoever the woman is on the next $10 bill, here’s who it shouldn’t be:

A politician. A Cabinet member. A First Lady.

Put a poet there. A scientist. A musician with a social cause. A social worker. A teacher. A suffragette. An abolitionist.

But, please, not someone primarily associated with politics.

Since Wednesday, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced that a woman will finally star on our paper money, opinions have heated up over who that woman should be.

The excitement is fun to watch, even if this is hardly an advance on par with the first moon landing.

In fact, it’s a bit of a letdown to some people. The honoree will be on a $10 bill instead of on a $20, a disappointment to those who wanted to oust Andrew Jackson.

The lucky winner won’t have the whole bill to herself either. She’ll have to cohabit with its current occupant, Alexander Hamilton.

And the redesign won’t arrive until 2020.

Still, it’s a breakthrough. As others have cracked, a woman is about to shatter the cash ceiling, at least for the first time since Martha Washington, wife of George, appeared on a silver certificate in the late 1800s.

But which woman?

A few women in the political realm are strong contenders.

One is Frances Perkins.

Perkins was U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She fought for child-abor laws. She established the country’s first minimum-wage and overtime laws. I’ve heard her referred to as kickass, and she was.

If she became the face on the next $10 bill, I’d be proud to carry that cash.

But the new currency is the perfect opportunity to think beyond Washington, D.C., to consider the fact that people with power and courage exist beyond the narrow political realm.

That’s why First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, grand as she was, wouldn’t get my vote.

When I was thinking about this topic, someone asked me why we put people’s faces on our money at all.

Why not put an excerpt of the Constitution instead?

Why not birds or butterflies, the way the Costa Ricans do?

Why not pizza?

The best answer, I think, is that people contain stories. Through individual stories we get to tell our bigger, collective ones.

As Jacob Lew, the Treasury Secretary, put it, “America’s currency is a way for our nation to make a statement about who we are and what we stand for.”

Who we are extends into art and culture, the environment and education, social work, and while all of those overlap with politics, they’re different too.

Other countries have acknowledged that fact on their money for a long time.

The women on the Swedish krona include an opera singer and a Nobel Prize-winning writer. Turkey, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia all have women on their paper money. England plans to put the 19th-century writer Jane Austen on its 10-pound note.

Regardless of which woman winds up on our money, the discussion about it is useful.

Thinking and talking about it is a way to review history and learn it.

I was entertained by the names that popped into my mind when I pondered candidates.

What about Louisa May Alcott?

She was a feminist, abolitionist and the author of Little Women, a book that has inspired generations of plucky girls. I wouldn’t mind carrying her around in my wallet.

How about Jane Addams?

That woman did everything. She was a writer and philosopher. She campaigned for women’s right to vote. As the co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, she helped immigrants and the poor. She won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

Handing Jane Addams to a cashier would make me stand up taller.

Rosa Parks, who bravely rode that segregated bus in Alabama? She’s high on my list too.

But when the argument is over, I hope the winner is the apparent frontrunner, Harriet Tubman.

I hadn’t thought of Tubman in years, frankly, but reminded of her life — an abolitionist born to slaves — I can’t imagine anyone better to represent who we’ve been and who we hope to be.

Whoever it is, it’s good to be reminded that the cash we carry represents the stories we tell ourselves.

(Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at [email protected] You can follow her on or contact her on

Photo: Elii Christman via Flickr

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Copyright 2015 The National Memo
  • Joe T

    You guessed it……………….HILLARY…….you betcha bud.

  • stcroixcarp

    Shirley Chisholm

  • tomtype

    Certainly we should NOT have a woman politician on our money. We need to use exactly the same standard as we do for the males on the money. Wait, they were all politicians.

  • tomtype

    Many countries put pictures of artists and other culturally important figures on their currency, but we insist on only putting politicians, mostly dead presidents on. Of course Hamilton and Franklin ($10 and $100) were never president, so even the slang “Dead Presidents” is a mis-nomer.

    • Allan Richardson

      How about Janis Joplin then? Or Georgia O’Keefe? Or Twila Tharp?

  • tomtype

    England and Canada put the queen on. Maybe we could wait and put the first woman president on, whoever that may be. But it would definitely put it off into the future even further, since the recipient of the honor cannot be living.

    • Allan Richardson

      Countries with royalty put the current monarch on their money because symbolically (and in earlier times literally) the country BELONGS to the monarch and so does the money. The United States, as a republic, belongs to the people, so only individuals who made a positive contribution to the people of the country should be portrayed. And no living persons, lest they embarrass themselves and the rest of us later in life by their behavior (at least with the dead ones, we know their sins and they cannot commit new ones).

  • tomtype

    Since whoever goes on, must share with Hamilton. Maybe we could just have a nice family portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, maybe even the kids. Trade one gay marriage for idealized straight marriage. With the right spin it might sell in Arkansas.

  • tdm3624

    Mother Theresa. I know she isn’t an American but she is probably more well-known than any of the other candidates. And it would be difficult to politicize her.

  • Allan Richardson

    How about a patriot AND scientist and science popularizer who was in the military? Admiral Grace Hopper, contributor to the ENIAC computer during the war as a young naval officer, originator of the term “bug” for computing logic errors (she found a dead moth stuck between contacts of one of thousands of relays, causing a permanent short circuit until removed by Hopper, who taped it in the testing notebook with the comment, “found the first bug”), brilliant civilian computer scientist, “Mother of COBOL” (a classic programming language still in use today), and explainer of computers and science to the public long after retiring (they made her a Rear Admiral shortly before, the first woman to rise to that rank), living into her 80s. She was married when she began her service, but at some point she was divorced or widowed, and thereafter too busy to remarry.

    Some science fiction fans, knowing that she may have been acquainted with Isaac Asimov during the war years, have speculated that she was the model for his character Susan Calvin in “I, Robot.” She was certainly smart enough. And there might not have been a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs without Grace Hopper. She should be drawn wearing a Rear Admiral dress uniform, with a page showing part of a COBOL program (and maybe an electrocuted moth?) behind her.